Last Pipeline Protesters Weigh Whether To Fight Or Leave

David Goldman/AP Photo

CANNON BALL, N.D. (AP) – Most of the demonstrators who gathered on the North Dakota plains to oppose the Dakota Access oil pipeline declared victory and departed their snowy protest camp last month after the Army announced it would halt the project.

Now that President Donald Trump’s administration is pushing to complete the pipeline, the few hundred protesters still living on the wind-whipped prairie must decide what to do – accept the likely defeat and leave, or stay and keep fighting.

Some vow to remain, but Trump’s action seems unlikely to spark a major rejuvenation of the depleted camp of people who dubbed themselves “water protectors.”

Dan Hein, a 43-year-old Ohio man who has been living at the camp since September, was packing Tuesday to go home. “I knew this was coming,” he said.

But Gena Neal, 43, who came from Oklahoma, said she was staying, even if protests remain subdued. “We are proving action by just being here,” she said Wednesday as snow swirled around a dozen people, many wearing donated ice grippers on their shoes.

Trump on Tuesday signed an executive action ordering the Army Corps of Engineers to quickly reconsider its Dec. 4 decision to stop the construction to allow time for more environmental study. Before the project can be finished, builders need permission to lay pipe under Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir from which an American Indian tribe draws its drinking water.

The tribe at the center of the protests, the Standing Rock Sioux, says the pipeline threatens its water and cultural sites. Developer Energy Transfer Partners disputes that.

Local law enforcement agencies geared up for a possible resumption of protests after Trump’s action, but no major incidents materialized, the Morton County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday.

There have been more than 625 arrests in the region since mid-August. Clashes and arrests tailed off dramatically in recent weeks after the tribal council told the protest camp to disband because of the Dec. 4 decision, the harsh winter weather and the need to get the area cleaned up before spring flooding.

At the camp’s peak, several thousand people were packed into a half-mile square, living in teepees, tents, buses, motor homes and semi-permanent wooden structures. One occupant set up a portable radio station. Others established a school for children in a large tent.

Today, fewer than 300 people remain on the federal land along the confluence of the Cannon Ball and Missouri rivers.
Even with its diminished population, the camp remains under constant surveillance from law enforcement officers and National Guard soldiers perched on nearby bluffs and in aircraft making regular flyovers.

Trump’s action could re-ignite protests, but “to what degree, we don’t know,” said Dallas Goldtooth, with the Indigenous Environmental Network, which had been one of the main camp organizers before heeding the tribe’s call to leave last month. That group and others have since called on pipeline opponents to spread out around the country.

“Standing Rock has ignited a fire in all of us,” Goldtooth said. “We hope to see those fires continue to burn.”

Helen Red Feather, 60, of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, said she plans to stay and continue fighting the pipeline that opponents have dubbed “the black snake.”

“I came here to kill the snake,” she said. “And I’m staying here to kill the snake.”

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